Happy 15th Anniversary to Slum Villages Fantastic, Vol. 2 LP, originally released June 13, 2000.
Much like my own hometown of Oakland, the city of Detroit is more often than not the object of stigmatization and misunderstanding. Particularly so among those who have never actually spent much time there and condemn Detroit based on the information they passively digest through television or in the papers. Granted, since the citys more prosperous years of the early to mid 20th century, Detroits recent history has proven a tragically disquieting one. Plagued by a tidal wave of economic crisis and urban decay arguably more pronounced than any other US metropolis has endured in the past fifty years, Detroit is indeed a skeleton of its formerly virile self.
But there is reason for hope. Recent commitment to and investment in reinvigorating the Detroit economy have shown promise, as evidenced by the accelerated influx of new business and young professionals interested in calling the Motor City home. The next few decades are destined to be a transformative period for Detroit, one marked by constant development and change. And through all of Detroits past, present and future impermanence, one cultural phenomenon has remainedand will remainremarkably stable throughout the city: its vibrant music scene.
The indelible legacy of Motown Records comes most immediately to mind when one thinks of Detroit’s musical heritage, and understandably so. But what I suspect many people dont recognize is that Detroit possesses one of the most dynamic underground rock, electronic, and hip-hop communities in the world. Not to mention that during the past quarter-century, Detroit has blessed the world with some of its most revered musical acts, such as garage/blues-rock stalwarts The White Stripes, techno pioneers Carl Craig and Derrick May, and rap juggernaut Eminem. The stuff of eternal local loreforever immortalized on the silver-screen in 2002s 8 Milethe latters contributions to broadening Detroit hip-hops global reach cannot be understated.
But Eminem is not the only offspring of Detroits rhyming battlegrounds that can rightfully claim legendary status. Formed in the mid-90s by the Conant Gardens trio of Baatin, T3 and J Dilla (a.k.a. Jay Dee), Slum Villages place in the annals of Detroit hip-hop culture is firmly established. More broadly, the groups mystique has continued to mature over the years, owing first and foremost to Dillas prolific production repertoire, but also to his untimely passing in 2006 at the age of 32, followed by Baatins death three years later at the young age of 35.
In 1997, Slum Village completed their first album, Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1, which caught fire throughout Detroits underground circles, but did not garner an official release until eight long years later in 2005. Concurrent with the recording and leak of his groups debut LP, Dilla had been moonlighting and building his credentials as part of The Ummah, the three-headed production team also comprised of A Tribe Called Quest co-founders Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
During its ephemeral four-year collaboration, Dilla and his Ummah colleagues cultivated an impressive string of achievements. The trio orchestrated two Tribe albums (1996s Beats, Rhymes & Life and 1998s swansong The Love Movement), Q-Tips 1999 solo debut Amplified, select tracks for Busta Rhymes, Keith Murray and Whitney Houston, as well as a handful of stellar remixes for both Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, the Brand New Heavies, and Jamiroquai. Arguably the career tipping point for Dilla, his years spent with The Ummahand his subsequent involvement as a founding member of the Soulquarians collectiveenabled him to refine his sonic skills, experiment with new sounds, and earn respect in wider hip-hop circles.
Through all of his newfound acclaim during the mid to late 90s, Dilla remained staunchly devoted to his roots, and returned to the studio with his Slum Village compatriots to record their sophomore long player. Completed in 1998 and an unfortunate casualty of the groups label (A&M) folding in early 1999, the official release of Fantastic, Vol. 2, a la its precursor LP, was delayed indefinitely. Plenty of heads heard the record, however, as it was heavily bootlegged not just in Detroit, but worldwide. In a 2014 Ambrosia For Heads interview, T3 recalls how unofficial copies of the album seemingly popped up everywhere:
I remember once we went to Europe in 1999, and there were some people that came up to us wanting us to sign our record that hadnt even been released yet, and the craziest thing was that the cover on it was like a picture of New Yorks skyline [laughing], and were like, Were not from New York, like why would that be the cover? So I guess whoever bootlegged it assumed that we were from New York just based on our style, and put the New York skyline on there with the words Slum Village. A lot of people had that same copy of it, too. So whoever bootlegged that probably made some good money on those.
The groundswell of support for the album meant that a new label deal was invariably on the horizon, and sure enough, GoodVibe Recordings & Barak Records capitalized on the momentum and released Fantastic, Vol. 2 in the spring of 2000.
Regarded by many as a trailblazing achievement that established the sonic blueprint for the Soulquarian-blessed neo-soul albums of the early 2000s , Fantastic, Vol. 2 is fundamentally and proudly hip-hop at its core. Fellow Detroit-bred emcee Black Milk contends that if it wasnt for Fantastic, Vol. 2, you wouldnt really have the sound you hear on DAngelos Voodoo or even Erykah Badus Mamas Gun and so on. Those (first two Slum Village) albums were the seed, the spark. At the end of the day, whether classified as hip-hop, neo-soul or otherwise, good music reigns supreme, and this album unquestionably fits the bill. Its aptly titled too, as few albums released in the past 15 years sound this fantastic.
Without question, Fantastic, Vol. 2 draws much of its power from Dillas unconventional yet meticulously crafted orchestration. Arguably the closest analog to the albums sound is Beats, Rhymes & Life, which should come as no surprise considering Dillas pivotal role in that LPs creation. Listen to tracks like I Dont Know and Jealousy in particular, and the sonic parallels between the two albums become unmistakably apparent.
At the same time, the album is propelled by Dillas innovative and unconstrained approach to song making, resulting in a uniquely original sound that has influenced countless musical peers. Renowned jazz pianist and passionate hip-hop aficionado Robert Glasper, whose J Dillalude tribute to Dillas legacy features on his trios 2007 In My Element LP and frequently appears within the Robert Glasper Experiments live set, has been an outspoken vocal champion of Fantastic, Vol. 2:
[Fantastic, Vol. 2] means a lot because of the time period it came out, and how it influenced the way I play doing my Trio and my Experiment bandjust the way we feel the beat, [J Dillas] drum patterns, drum sounds, the way he samples piano and where he decides to put itit’s placement is what makes it just very, very special. So I’ve kind of patterned a lot of the stuffespecially when we play J Dilla beats, we pattern a lot of our stuff around his idea of where the beat isso I think he was definitely ahead of his time and a genius of his time.
You dont need to look too hard to find a myriad other artists who echo Glaspers sentiments and consider Fantastic, Vol. 2 a sonic masterpiece and one of Dillas career-defining works.
Most of the LPs twenty tracks bounce along at a mid-tempo pace, with Dillas crisp, funk-inspired grooves designed to induce even the most stoic of heads to bounce. Its a sample-heavy affair, to be sure, but the beauty of Dillas adventurous crate-digging approach is in the relative obscurity of the records he tended to incorporate, very much in a similar vein as fellow producer extraordinaire Pete Rock, who co-produced the albums Once Upon a Time. And even when Dilla leverages more commonly borrowed fare, as he does with a handful of James Brown samples on I Dont Know, the way that he integrates the samples is refreshingly inventive and reinforces just how much of a perfectionist he was.
Dilla also proves a capable switch-hitter on the album, flexing his underrated rhyming skills and trading memorable verses with Baatin and T3. Perhaps by democratic design, the time that each of the trios members spends gripping the mic is divided in an uncommonly egalitarian manner, as they give props to their native stomping grounds (Conant Gardens), big up their crews rhyming prowess (Jealousy, Hold Tight), and expose the wackest of emcees (Players). Love and sex are also recurring themes throughout the album, as manifest on the chilled-out tribute to sexual freedom Climax, the DAngelo produced Tell Me, and the boastful romp of Go Ladies.
Among the album’s more endearingly cerebral fare is the melodic Fall in Love, an introspective and heartfelt exploration of the groups motivations for making music. On one of the albums most poignant verses, T3 reflects:
Yeah, JD man, see sometimes
I sit and wonder when I think about these written rhymes
How’d I get to the point constantly taking all my time?
Time I could of been spending gettin’ cash, gettin’ mine
Hoping one day it comes around
One day when I’m
The nigga gettin’ money, gettin’ cash, gettin’ signed
Getting the fuck out the ghetto, cause I’m tired of crime
But it’s a crime that I feel this fucking way sometimes
But sometimes I feel like this shit here’s a waste of time
Yours and mine
To these niggas out here trying to rhyme
Your reason for it better sure ‘nough be genuine
I do it because it gives me a sort of peace-of-mind
And for the love
Seldom has the struggle of so-called indie artists navigating the vicissitudes of fame been articulated as sincerely as it is by T3 here.
Testament to the solid reputation that Slum Village developed within the broader hip-hop community during the few years preceding the album, the group is joined by a handful of notable contributors. In addition to the aforementioned support provided by Pete Rock and DAngelo, Q-Tip lends his witty wordplay to Hold Tight, Busta Rhymes shines on What Its All About, Kurupt represents for the west coast on Forth and Back, Jazzy Jeff scratches on “I Don’t Know,” and Common spits his signature fire on atmospheric album closer Thelonious. The latter track, which also surfaced on the Chicago emcees Like Water for Chocolate LP earlier the same year, stands as one of the albums most thrilling tracks and a fitting way to conclude the whole affair.
In a recent Long Play Love piece, I praised Like Water for Chocolate as the first classic hip-hop album of our current millennium. The second? Fantastic, Vol. 2. Slum Villages sophomore effort is one of those truly rare, cohesively constructed LPs that can be spun from beginning to end with nary a compromise to song quality heard along the way. Damn near every tune is a standout, a feat made even more remarkable when you consider just how deep the album is at 20 tracks strong. A bona fide hip-hop treasure, Fantastic, Vol. 2s cultural cachet will undoubtedly continue to expand in years to come.
My Favorite Song: Fall in Love